Boardwalk empire: a history of five Scottish piers

Dunoon pier was built in 1895. Picture: Contributed
Dunoon pier was built in 1895. Picture: Contributed
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AS a new book marks the 200th anniversary of a British seaside institution – the pier – we publish an extract profiling five of Scotland’s surviving structures

Piers quickly became a popular seaside attraction in England and Wales. In Scotland, piers developed separately yet, as co-author Anthony Wills says in the introduction to his book British Seaside Piers: “Even Scotland wasn’t immune to the charms of the pier…It can be argued though that Scottish piers, in their simplicity, show us what piers were like before the age of pavilions and other entertainment buildings.”

Blairmore is a beautiful village on the western shore of Loch Long on the Cowal Peninsula. The traditional pier of wooden construction dates back to 1855, when it was built to encourage steamer traffic at a time when villas and country retreats were being built in this scenic and remote location in order to escape the industrial pollution of Glasgow.

The pier reached its zenith around the turn of the [20th] century with more than 4,000 steamer calls per year, before its chequered period began in the 1930s. Gradual deterioration of the wooden structure meant that, by 1998, it was unsafe to be used by pleasure ships, and the Friends of Blairmore Pier Trust was established to oversee restoration work, which was completed in time for national pleasure steamers PS Waverley and MS Balmoral to celebrate the pier’s triumphant reopening in its 150th anniversary year, 2005.

Today, Blairmore Pier receives regular summer calls, the pier buildings and landing stage have been fully restored, and the Pier Trust operate the pier on a long-term lease from its owner, Agnes Harvey, who purchased it in 2004. Income is generated from berthing fees, merchandise sold by the trust and special events. At the head of the pier a museum and heritage display enables visitors to learn about its history and importance.

There is also the rare chance to enjoy a holiday in part of the pier – the original ticket office has been lovingly restored to a high standard as a holiday chalet available for hire.

Blairmore Pier is a vital and much-loved part of the local community and provides the only direct marine access to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

The pier is a popular fishing location and has earned its place in the Scottish record books as the place from which the largest angler fish has ever been caught. The record catch, hauled in during 1970, weighed a massive 13.6kg (30lb).

Rothesay pier has always been an important lifeline for the Isle of Bute, and its origins date back well into the 18th century, developing from a network of quays and jetties built to serve the steamships bringing passengers and cargo from the Clyde.

The pier boasted a handsome baronial terminal building, which was lost to a fire in 1962, and the buildings today date from subsequent rebuilds, most notably in 1992 when replica buildings were constructed following extensive re-piling of the original wooden structure. In order to recreate as closely as possible the Victorian atmosphere of the pier, replica lamp posts were installed along its length, and the original Victorian public conveniences restored to award-winning standards. The restored pier, complete with replica buildings, reopened on 1 May, 1992.

The restored Victorian toilets on Rothesay Pier are believed to be the only public conveniences in the United Kingdom that boast their own visitor attraction leaflet.

Rothesay has experienced a revival of its fortunes and the local council has made major investments in the town’s waterfront and infrastructure. A new ferry berth on the front of the pier and a new adjustable linkspan bridge for loading and unloading of vehicles was constructed to enable larger ferries to operate on the Rothesay to Wemyss Bay route. A new gangway for foot passengers was also constructed. The new Rothesay pier and harbour redevelopment was opened on 7 February, 2009.

Today visitors may enjoy both ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne and pleasure cruises by PS Waverley.

The present pier at Dunoon dates from 1895 and continues to serve the vital role for which it was built: ferry and pleasure steamer services. The entrance building is of striking appearance, traditional wooden architecture offset by a red tiled roof.

Of wooden construction, the pier has benefited from continual upgrade and investment, acknowledging its status as an important link in the area’s transport infrastructure. With ever increasing demand for passenger services, in 2004 a new linkspan was constructed alongside to facilitate roll-on roll-off vessels in addition to side-loading and traditional ones.

The importance of the pier is recognised by the fact that it is possible to enjoy three shipping companies’ services. Regular passenger ferries are operated by Western Ferries with the ability to transport cars, while Argyll Ferries operate a passenger service to Gourock. During the summer months traditional pleasure cruises operate from Dunoon courtesy of PS Waverley – the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world – ensuring this remains one of Scotland’s busiest piers.

Opposite the pier stands the Queen’s Hall. Built in 1958, it is the town’s major complex, housing four function suites and a main entertainment hall with fully equipped stage.

Dunoon plays host to the famous Cowal Highland Gathering, which attracts visitors from all over the world on the last weekend of August. Nearby is the beautiful Holy Loch, and the Benmore Botanic Gardens.

Overlooking the pier is a large statue to Robert Burns’ love, Highland Mary, just below the ruins of Dunoon Castle. It became a royal castle with the Earls of Argyll as hereditary keepers, paying a nominal rent of a single red rose to the sovereign.

Tighnabruaich, in the Firth of Clyde, is one of the few piers of traditional wooden construction that survives as a working pier used for its original purpose. It is a listed building within a National Scenic Area.

The present structure dates to around 1885 and is a remodelling of an earlier pier dating back to 1830. The Tighnabruaich estate sold the pier to the pier master, George Olding; passing into the responsibility of the local authority in 1965, it is now kept under the watchful eye of the Tighnabruaich Pier Association.

Following extensive storm damage in 2010, which resulted in calls having to be abandoned by PS Waverley, the pier has been lovingly and extensively restored.

Attractions include the beautiful waiting room, and the former pier master’s office is now a heritage centre and museum dedicated to the history of the pier. Set amid some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland, the pier once again enjoys calls by the PS Waverley during the summer months.

Tighnabruaich was entirely dependent on the pier for all its needs until the hamlet joined the national road network in 1969.

Wemyss Bay is almost unique insofar as the pier and railway terminus form a complete transport interchange facility, replicated only at Gourock, and demonstrate the advanced thinking of the Caledonian Railway in combining steamer and rail services for mass movement of people.

The current structures date from 1903 when, due to demand, the railway from Glasgow was upgraded to double track, and is a combination of several buildings, all designed by the prolific architect James Miller. The entrance is built of stone and harl (a mixture of lime and gravel) and features a distinctive 18m (60ft) tall clock tower, and internally everything is roofed in a bright, airy, fully glazed lattice steel structure, which curves fluently in both section and plan.

Around the central semi-circular booking office, shallow arched canopies slide out over arcaded platforms and down the gently sloping ramped hall leading to the pier and ferry to Rothesay. Both the station and pier are among the finest examples of surviving Scottish railway architecture and have a Grade A conservation listing.

Famed for its displays of potted and hanging flowers, the station and pier have been lovingly restored in recent years and continue to be an important transport interchange. Facilities include booking hall, bar and an exclusive bookshop run by the Friends of Wemyss Bay Station, who ensure the showpiece is maintained to a very high standard.

• British Seaside Piers by Anthony Wills and Tim Phillips (English Heritage, £25) is out now.